Living in a big city means coping with some obnoxious forms of humanity, from the motorist who speeds through red lights to the smoker who treats the sidewalk as an ashtray. But surely one of the worst is the transit rider who doesn’t pay the fare.
Fare evaders are a sneaky bunch. In Toronto, some get hold of child Presto cards that allow those under 13 to ride free. Others “tailgate” – slip in behind the person in front when going through those paddle-style fare gates in transit stations. Still others just get on board and try to look inconspicuous.
The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) estimates that 15.9 per cent of streetcar riders skip paying. Now that riders tap in instead of using tokens and transfers, it’s easier for cheats. Who is going to notice if they don’t tap their Presto cards, especially now that people board streetcars from all doors and drivers are more insulated and less watchful? A new TTC report says that some people even use social media to warn other commuters that fare inspectors are coming.
Fare evaders may convince themselves they are doing no harm. What does it matter if a huge organization is out a few bucks? But, of course, they are robbing everyone around them.
By depriving the TTC of desperately needed revenue – $73.5-million last year, by the most recent estimate – they make it harder for the transit service to keep its vehicles in shape and run enough of them to meet the demand from riders.
What is worse, they undermine the fragile civility that makes cities work. When millions of people are living side by side in a small space, you need some rules. In successful cities, residents pay their taxes, stop for red lights, shovel their snow, line up for service and tap for their bus ride. When that web of mutually agreed behaviour falls apart, you have trouble.
The TTC is justifiably worried. Its new report suggests making Presto readers more reliable and easy to find so riders aren’t tempted to avoid paying, pushing a “pay-your-fair-share” message in public communications and putting more TTC agents at busy subway station entrances.
The TTC is already hiring more fare inspectors to deter evasion. Special transit constables are there to back them up.
Some transit advocates find this objectionable. There was a flurry on outline outrage on Friday when a video clip circulated showing TTC constables tussling with a man on the Queen streetcar. Though the clip showed only a confusing fragment of the encounter, some city councillors rushed to judgment. Kristyn Wong-Tam tweeted that “the actual offence, if any, doesn’t even matter anymore. This is not how the TTC should be treating riders.” Police laid charges against the man. The TTC is investigating.
To others the very notion of cracking down on fair evasion is wrong. The TTCriders group said the Feb. 11 TTC report “unfairly places blame on ‘fare evasion behaviour’ and not the rising cost of transit in an increasingly unaffordable city.” The idea seems to be that riders are declining to pay because they have no choice: the $3.10 fare is too steep and life in Toronto just too expensive. Instead of cracking down on evaders, these critics argue, why not give the TTC more money? In fact, why not just reduce the fare to zero?
In a better world, wonderful. In the one we have now, the TTC needs those fares. Saying you won’t pay because you think the fare is too high is no different than stealing a shirt because you think the store is charging too much. Theft raises costs for everyone, rich and poor. It is unfair to those who follow the rules, take their civic obligations seriously and pay up.
Fare cheats aren’t making a political statement, they are making a choice. They are choosing to put their own interests first, no matter what the ultimate cost to their fellow riders and their city. That is plain wrong and most evaders know it.